Burke and Hare (2010)
Dir. John Landis
Written by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft
Starring Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry
The year was 2010. It had been 25 years since anyone attempted a Burke and Hare film following the critical and commercial failure of THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS way back in 1985. That’s the longest gap between attempts ever on record since the first film version in 1948, and nearly twice as long as the second longest gap, the 13-year downtime between the previous two efforts. It had also been 18 years since director John Landis’s last movie, the indifferently-received SUSAN’S PLAN from 1998, and since that time he’d seemed perfectly content (perhaps even obnoxiously so) giving Slash a run for his money as “that documentary whore guy” who appears in every single retrospective about anyone even remotely famous during his lifetime. We all figured he was just biding his time, waiting around Hollywood for the suits to run out of 70’s TV shows to re-”imagine” and approach him for BLUES BROTHERS 3: ELECTRIC BLUEGALOO with a briefcase full of money and a wheelbarrow full of cocaine. But I dunno, someone must have fed him after midnight or something because in 2010, without warning, BURKE AND HARE suddenly appeared.
Well, “appeared” might be overselling it somewhat. It snuck in and out of theaters in the US in 2011 with a laughable 4,833 dollars, or the approximate value of four fresh bodies delivered to Dr. Knox in 1828. Last weekend alone, JURASSIC WORLD made an average of $47,871per location. The result of this is that I didn’t hear about this film until 2014, when it unceremoniously appeared on Netflix, and didn’t realize it was directed by Landis until I watched the opening titles. “How,” I wondered aloud, “is it possible that John Landis made a new black comedy with Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry, plus a whole raft of delightful cameos (the now dear-departed Christopher Lee, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON’S Jenny Agutter, DEATH WISH director Michael Winner for some reason, Ricky Gervais sidekick Stephen Merchant, Ray Harryhausen) and yet, it never hit my radar? And man, why do I feel like I asked almost that exact same question somewhere else recently?
Well, it turns out once again there’s a pretty good reason this one never soared to epic heights. But at least it’s a different reason than the last few failures. Hey, progress!
|Are you not entertained!?|
On paper, the idea of having Landis take on the Burke and Hare story as a black comedy seems a good one. Landis is, of course, responsible for what many justifiably contend is the best horror-comedy of all time (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS LONDON), and has an unusually deft hand for successfully interweaving genuine genre thrills (monsters in WEREWOLF, car chases in BLUES BROTHERS, tits in ANIMAL HOUSE) with sharp-witted but good-natured comedy. And of course, this would hardly be the first film to inject a streak of sadistic laffs into this grim true story; in fact, though only 1972’s BURKE AND HARE is (arguably) a straight comedy, pretty much every iteration of this tale has at least a sprinkling of bruising wit, usually courtesy of the caustic Dr. Knox. That Landis decided to shoot the film at Ealing Studios --known for classic black comedies like KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS and THE LADYKILLERS-- spoke to his aspirations and would have given me a lot of hope in the project if I’d ever heard about it beforehand. Everything seemed set up for a merciless, coal-black autopsy of this darkly absurd true story.
So what goes wrong? Well, nothing, at first. The film begins with an assured long tracking shot across an elaborately staged Edinburgh marketplace, as impressive a bit of filmmaking as anything in any of the preceding movies. There’s a semi-awkward bit of expository narration, but it quickly disappears and it ends in a pretty funny sequence with an angry old lady being hanged and carted off for medical experimentation, so I’m on board. But the problems begin when we reach our Burke and Hare, here played by Pegg and Serkis, respectively. No, it’s not that they’re bad actors or anything; they both have impeccable timing and a respectable (though by no means overwhelming) chemistry. Here’s the problem: they’re really nice.
That is the issue, and it’s a surprisingly fundamental one which dooms the production from the get-go. For a jokey comedy about serial killers, but it’s just too nice. It’s a black comedy, but it can’t quite bring itself to really go for the throat the way it needs to in order to make this work. It feels tame and accommodating and eager to please, but it’s telling a story which is simply too dark to apologize away. The plot is pretty black, but the comedy is not -- it’s cheerful and ingratiating. The style of humor undercuts the material, and not in an interesting or subversive way, more like a way which seems fundamentally uncomfortable with the actual premise. John Gilling, Dylan Thomas and James Bridie approached the humor in this concept with a mordant, sardonic wit that belied the coldy nihilistic world the characters populated. Here writers Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft favor bawdy slapstick and geeky historical references, relying on the cast --especially Pegg as Burke-- to not just be funny but likeable. The entire movie’s conflict is based around Burke’s desperate desire to prove his love to a misguided actress (Isla Fisher) and you’re supposed to sympathize with him! Yes, this is the first movie to believe that the appropriate story structure for this tale of greed and murder is a goddam romantic comedy.
|A rare photo of the reclusive grave gopher.|
Even with that misguided premise, there might have been a way to save the concept by turning it into a wicked meta-joke, a leering undermining of the hoary old romantic comedy trope by casually revealing its main characters to be monsters. But BURKE AND HARE (2010) can’t seem to bring itself to do that. It wants us to like its protagonists --or at least Burke-- and root for them to succeed, and that’s precisely the way it organized its central conflict. But how to make us root for these two vicious, greedy serial killers? Well, there’s not really a way, but they way they attempt is to minimize everything. There’s no way to entirely erase the fact that Burke and Hare are killers, but they do everything they can to make it more palatable. They start by making Burke a hesitant participant in everything; Hare keeps egging him on and reminding him he’s “doing it for love” as he unforgivably phrases it once he’s caught, and he keeps complaining and trying to back out without ever quite doing it. The movie seems to take the stance that this makes it somehow less his fault, and it tries to tidy things up by making sure that most of the murders it shows us either aren’t strictly his fault (one man has a heart attack and dies upon seeing them, for example, another is basically self-defense) or simply happen off-screen. That failing, it adopts a wacky madcap comedy tone during the murders, so that Burke and Hare banter back and forth ceaselessly while they’re bloodlessly doing someone in and the focus is on them, not the murder. Not a single victim is portrayed sympathetically, and most are never introduced at all prior to the advent of their death. We’re even provided a rogue’s gallery of villains (the smug Dr. Monro, a group of bullying gangsters), in an attempt to turn the these killers here into relatable underdogs!
Now, I don’t object to this on moral grounds, obviously. Someone who subjected the public to 19,000 words on the cinematic oeuvre of Burke and Hare is probably in no position to be making moral arguments of any kind, and hey, it’s not like this is the first time one of these adaptations has had an inexplicable sympathetic tendency towards one of its obvious villains (though they usually reserves that honor for Knox, not the actual murderers). But the problem here is that in order to even make a gesture towards Burke and Hare being anything less than utter monsters, the film has to soft-pedal their actual role as cold-blooded psychopaths as much as it possibly can. In other words, it has to avoid, as much as possible, the only actual point of telling this story. If these two guys are basically nice dudes and the whole killing spree is sort of wacky and incidental, then who cares? The only interesting thing about this whole pathetic saga, and the only reason anyone would ever bother remembering this minor historical anecdote, much less making a major motion picture about it, is because of the murders! But the filmmakers here are committed to this idea of Burke and Hare as loveable rascals, so they can’t possibly dwell on that fact.
You would be forgiven, then, for wondering how exactly a Burke and Hare movie can be made if the single, solitary point of interest is minimized in every imaginable way. Well friends, the answer is: subplots. Most of the screen time is taken up with Burke’s ill-conceived efforts to help his would-be beau (who ices him out at every turn, even as he showers money on her, haha?) stage an all-female version of MacBeth, Hare’s shenanigans with his alcoholic wife and desire to start a funeral parlor, Dr. Knox’s competition with antiquated fellow surgeon Dr. Monro (Tim Curry, marking the only appearance of the historical Dr. Monro in any screen adaptation) and his dream of using the brand-new medium of photography to make dissection unnecessary, a comically incompetent militia’s efforts to protect the dead from grave robbers, and a local underworld figure’s interest in getting in on Burke and Hare’s action. You’ll notice that not a single one of those stories actually has any meaningful connection to the historical Burke and Hare, but they’re the movies’ main interest and the biggest chunk of the runtime. Meanwhile, actual Burke and Hare staples like Daft Jamie, Mary Paterson and the Gray family are conspicuously absent.*
|A great feet of science|
Which begs the question: why make a Burke and Hare movie at all if you’re uncomfortable with the basic elements of the story and are more interested in crafting a zany historical rom-com? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question, but I must admit that whatever the reason, it’s not a complete waste. As ill-conceived as this whole enterprise is, it has plenty of legitimate chuckles and a handful of real laughs. Still, there’s no avoiding the fact that the script feels pretty half-baked. There are a smattering of clever historical allusions (the film is the first Burke and Hare adaptation to include a young Charles Darwin as a side character, and we’re also introduced to Dr. Lister [of Listerine fame], Greyfriars Bobby [the dog who in famously guarded his dead owner’s grave for 14 years], Nicéphore Niépce [often credited as the inventor of photography], and poet William Wordsworth) but let’s be honest, it’s not exactly a masterpiece of classical wit. There are more sex jokes than history jokes, and frankly, too few of either. The script is needlessly plotty and expository and the jokes tend to be either broad slapstick or dry historical references. A lot of the heavy lifting is left to the cast.
It’s a charming cast, obviously, so they’re more than capable of entertaining even with material which isn’t quite there. There is not a role ever imagined that Simon Pegg can’t make watchable, I think if you cast him in the John Huston role in CHINATOWN we’d still think he was a loveable scamp. Serkis (a last-minute replacement for David Tennant) is a capable enough actor, though maybe a little lacking in magnetism to play a lead role like this. Wilkinson is always a solid addition to any movie, though his character as written is too broad to be the complicated, contradictory Knox of other films but not funny enough to justify his over-large screen time. Curry is a delight as always, but mostly wasted on a one-note foot fetish joke. Isla Fisher gets some laughs as a ferociously overacting female MacBeth,** but is also stranded in a weird, unmotivated and frankly kind of unlikable character who exists purely as an object for our male lead to win over. The movie never even makes a gesture towards giving her any kind of consistent motivation or characterization, which frankly is kind of emblematic of the problems here -- more than perhaps any other Burke and Hare movie, this one seems completely blind to any psychological examination. Characters just do the things the movie needs for them to do at that particular moment, and as a result it all feels rather incidental.
|People will totally be invested in our unearned romance, cheers to that!|
So the film is well-cast, the production is handsome, the editing is energetic and it’s reasonably entertaining all the way through, which already puts it ahead of much of the cinematic competition. It’s not a disaster by any means, but I dunno, somehow it feels like this should all add up to more than it does. It never quite overcomes its reticence to directly address what terrible, terrible people these guys are, which is especially a problem for the unnecessarily protracted ending where it tries to get all serious about how sad it is that Burke’s going to be executed. At the film’s very end, the narrator returns to remind us, “I know he seemed like a nice guy and all that. And I suppose you have to respect the the made the ultimate sacrifice for love. But he did kill all those people just for money. And that’s just evil!” -- a sentiment which is appreciated since it’s the film’s only acknowledgement of the fact. Obviously it might have been better had that idea been conveyed by the story and not just tacked on as a postscript, but at least it’s in there. Problem is, though, that while I can only speak for myself, I didn’t have to be reminded that killing people for money is evil. It’s obvious all along, and the film’s apparent belief that we’ll be sad to see this “nice guy” who “made the ultimate sacrifice for love” get hanged is a perfect metaphor for its bizarre dissociative break with the actual reality of the story it’s telling. Nice guys do not go on serial murdering rampages so they can afford to buy the affections of hot women, not even in black comedies. The film needs him to be both a nice guy and a serial killer for this to work, and it simply fails to reconcile those two ends in any meaningful way, or, hell, even address them outside that single line of dialogue at the end. There’s simply no satisfactory way of explaining how Burke, as portrayed in the movie, ended up as a cold-blooded killer. As entertaining as the movie can be at times, this is a pretty damning flaw, and ensures that while it may generate a few chuckles, there’s no way to connect with the characters or the story on a deeper level. Comedy, and dark comedy in particular, is usually only going to be as potent as it is accurate, and alas, 2010’s BURKE AND HARE simply has very little to actually say about the real world.
As an addition to the Burke and Hare pantheon, it’s kind of an odd-man-out. Obviously, it’s a pretty major change to make Burke and Hare the good guys, but there’s actually a lot of the movie which deviates from the templates created by THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS/THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART (depending on which one you want to credit as the first to use the story structure pioneered in Thomas’s screenplay but first depicted on-screen by Gilling) which has totally dominated the way this story has been told for decades. Most notable, perhaps, is the total lack of any Handsome Generic Med Student. This ahistorical character has been a central organizing point for every single Burke and Hare adaptation, and arguably represents the most obvious audience surrogate here, a moral character who can identify with Dr. Knox’s desire to push the boundaries of knowledge but who also has a stronger link to humanity. And because it’s through this character that we often meet Burke and Hare’s victims (Daft Jamie and --especially-- Mary Paterson) they too are neatly excised from this version. With no victims to sympathize with and no character to dramatize and embody that sympathy, the movie’s conflict has to arise from other sources, and so it gives Burke and Hare made-up personal goals and uses the ahistorical subplot about anatomical photography to make Dr. Knox’s endgame a little more concrete than the usual “I have to teach the next generation of med students.” It’s an interesting idea, and one that I think could make a legitimate good movie someday when someone comes along who has the balls to make Burke and Hare the central characters without trying to sugarcoat what awful, dismal people they were. Here, though, it doesn’t work out any better than the fragmented usual template does; stranded of any psychological motivation, the conflicts here seem arbitrary and trivial, and the most interesting aspects of the plot are maddeningly ignored.
There is one bit of noteworthy trivia, however: Christopher Lee plays the oft-neglected first (or possibly second) Burke and Hare victim, “Joseph the Miller” (though for whatever reason the movie erroneously indicates that he was actually a soldier). He doesn’t get a ton to do except lie there, but his presence is interesting, because of course Lee played the Burke and Hare amalgam “Resurrection Joe”*** in the Boris-Karloff-starring CORRIDORS OF BLOOD in 1958. But it gets even better, because Karloff himself played another Burke and Hare amalgam in the classic Robert Wise Burke and Hare story/sequel THE BODYSNATCHER thirteen years prior in 1945. So you’ve got three generations of Burke and Hare here, spanning a tumultuous 65 years. In those many years, across many decades and eras of filmmaking, it seems like no one has quite managed to figure out how the story mechanics should work, but at least BURKE AND HARE (2010) represents a fresh start, a genuine try for something new. It doesn’t quite work, but hey, at least that keeps it part of what is now quite a venerable tradition.
*They’re mentioned in the dialogue when a list of victims is read, but not seen
**Though as over-the-top as she is, it’s kinda an over-the-top part so she’s probably not really overdoing it more than plenty of other, non-comedy actors who have come before her. The idea of an all-female MacBeth turns out to be funnier in concept than in practice, since at the end of the day there’s really only one joke there, and that is that it’s a female Macbeth. And what’s the deal with the audience reaction? Everything about this concept is laughable, but then for completely unexplained reasons it turns out to be a huge success, an absolutely unearned turn of events which exists solely due to the script’s dramatic need for it. Pretty lazy.
***Hold on a minute while I go legally change my name.
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